Freshman Rep. Bobby Bright won his seat in Congress by convincing conservative southeast Alabama voters that he wasn’t a typical Democrat. Barely a week into his Washington career, he showed that he meant it.
On a vote that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi saw as a slam dunk for kicking off the new Congress, Bright opposed a bill named after an Alabama tire-factory worker that would ease restrictions for women challenging pay discrimination. A few days later, Bright voted against another Democratic rallying point, expanding health insurance for children of the working poor.
Bright’s rebellion against his party’s agenda illustrates the trade-offs that Democrats face in reaching into conservative strongholds like the Deep South to build their majorities in Washington.
During the first few months of the Obama administration, the new House members that Democrats worked so hard to elect in recent years have been among the least loyal with their votes. Of the 20 Democrats who voted against the party’s $3.6 trillion budget, for example, 12 were elected during the Democrats’ resurgence in the past two elections. According to a Washington Post votes database, nine of the 10 Democrats with the most independent voting records are freshmen or second-termers.
So far, the newcomers haven’t caused Pelosi too much heartache; her majority is big enough to withstand sacrificing a few votes here and there. But as Congress moves on to contentious issues such as health care, immigration and the environment, the new players could become key brokers in what Pelosi can deliver.
They also can air their differences publicly and undermine the party’s message, as two-term Democrat Heath Shuler of North Carolina did in February when he said Pelosi wasn’t pursuing the bipartisan compromise for which President Barack Obama called in his campaign.
Democrats gained a total of 55 House seats in the last two elections, including 24 in November. Many of the gains came in Republican-leaning districts in states like Alabama, Virginia, and Arizona that would probably balk at more liberal representation.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat who runs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said the party understands the position that new members are in and is willing to allow them broad independence.
"They understand the majority of the caucus’ views on these things, but it’s left to them to determine what’s in the best interests of their constituents," Van Hollen said, echoing similar comments from Pelosi.
"If you had tighter margins it obviously makes it more difficult," Van Hollen added. But "right now we are very focused on issues that tend to bring the Democratic caucus together."
The party’s more liberal wing doesn’t necessarily share the "big tent" philosophy.
Groups such as Accountability Now and Campaign for America’s Future plan to target Democrats who they believe are out of step with Democratic momentum.
Accountability Now, a coalition of activists and labor unions, has begun raising money to mount primary challenges to some Democrats. Director Jeff Hauser said the organization recognizes that ideologies vary widely by region but is concerned that new members eager to raise money for re-election are being too strongly influenced by business and lobbying interests.
"There was an agenda that Democrats were elected to enact," he said. "What we fear is that lobbyist-funded members will push the consensus away from what the people elected members to do."
The group is still determining which members to target. But Hauser said they will not shy away from going after vulnerable Democrats in conservative districts if it sees them as out of step.
Such movements have proved effective in the past, most notably against Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who was forced to become an independent after losing the Democratic primary in 2006.
New moderates like Bright and Walt Minnick of Idaho, however, don’t appear concerned.
Minnick, the first Idaho Democrat to serve in Congress in 14 years, said his district is fiscally conservative and that’s how he votes.
Asked what makes him a Democrat, he said he disagrees with Republicans that "the solution to every economic situation is a big tax cut."
"You have to realize that there are some things with government spending that are essential," Minnick said. "My big concern is deficits. Democrats are spending too much, and Republicans are too much in the Dick Cheney mode of, ‘Deficits don’t matter.’"